Acid rain consensus cloudy

Adirondack Council says EPA rollbacks 'reversed' positive trend, but two scientists say that's a misreading of data

Canada geese pass as Whiteface Mountain looms in the background on Tuesday afternoon in Lake Placid. (Enterprise photo —Lou Reuter)

Last week the Adirondack Council issued a statement on acid rain in the Adirondacks, linking increasing pollution from Midwest power plants to a rise in the acidity of clouds here and saying, “It is troubling to see acid rain re-emerge as a threat to the Adirondack Park.”

The researchers who collected that cloud data, while agreeing with the Council on the need to keep acid rain at bay, disagreed that the cloud pH levels have “reversed their previous trends.” They said a drop between 2016 and 2017 was “minor” and “a natural variation.” They also said that the latest data shows the acidity of Adirondack clouds continues to improve.

Acid rain is not the ecological threat it once was, but, the Adirondack Council warned that if the rules and regulations which stopped the poisoning of Adirondack water in the 1990s are not maintained or enforced, it may not stay that way.

For the past three years the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed coal-fired power plants to get away with breaking EPA rules by not turning on their sulfur dioxide filters. The press release from the Adirondack Council shows a list of plants that increased their emissions between 6% and 323% between 2017 and 2018, by not filtering out sulfur dioxide.

“A review of national emissions data (provided by the EPA) shows that between 2017 and 2018, emissions of sulfur dioxide increased by more than 1,000 tons at each of 16 coal-fired power plants in nine states whose emissions create acid rain and smog in New York,” the release states.

The Gavin Power Plant on the Ohio River in Cheshire, Ohio, is fired by coal. (Photo provided — Wikimedia Commons)

Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain and for decades in the mid- to late-1900s it blew east into the Adirondack mountains and came down in precipitation, rapidly rising the acidity in lakes, rivers and ponds making some of them uninhabitable to fish, plants and wildlife.

Acid flashback?

The release includes data from the University of Wisconsin’s National Atmospheric Deposition Program, which is run from the Whiteface Mountain Atmospheric Sciences Research Center and operated by the University at Albany. Since 2001 the site has tracked the average pH level of clouds and monitored for precursor gases to acid rain.

This chart shows how the pH level of summer rain observed on Whiteface Mountain generally went up, meaning the rain was less acidic, from 2001 to 2017. (Photo provided)

High pH numbers are good. It means the water is not very acidic, which is good for sustaining a healthy ecosystem of many plants and animals.

The data shows the pH level rising from 4.1 in 2001, peaking at 5.2 in 2016. In 2017 it dropped back down to 5.0, the largest decrease in pH since 2003.

Though there was a decrease in the pH level of clouds measured at the summit of Whiteface between 2016 and 2017, Richard Brandt, science manager for the University of Albany’s Whiteface observatory, said this is not indicative of a trend.

“That’s a really inappropriate conclusion to come from that data,” Brandt said. “It’s just a natural variation.”

The graph of data shows several dips in pH levels in the past years that last no more than two years at once. Between 2010 and 2011 the chart shows a large drop from around 5.1 to around 5.0, rising again to 5.1 the next year.

Richard Brandt, science manager at the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at Whiteface Mountain, presents the latest scientific understanding of climate change at the climate action symposium at First Presbyterian Church in April. (Enterprise photo — Jesse Adcock)

Brandt said the research methodology has its limitations, as it is based on how clouds hit Whiteface Mountain. Clouds are dirtiest on the bottom and were they land on the mountain changes how their pH is read.

Brandt, an Adirondack Council member, said he agreed with the press release’s overall message about limiting pollution, but said its conclusions that the EPA changes in the past three years have impacted the Adirondacks yet are wrong.

“I’m just concerned about both our reputation(s),” Brandt said.

He said he doesn’t want either to be seen as politically biased, as the press release starts by pointing a finger at President Donald Trump’s administration for the increased pollution.

“We haven’t really seen any changes in the Adirondacks that you could attribute to the changes in EPA policy,” Brandt said.

Adirondack Council Director of Communications John Sheehan meets with the Enterprise editorial board in September in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

Pennsylvania and Delaware, however, he said may see changes, as they are closer to the power plants putting out the pollution.

Adirondack Council Director of Communications John Sheehan agreed that the dip in pH did not constitute the start of a long decline. Still, he said there is reason to be concerned.

“We may not see right away all of the emissions changes that are likely to occur from the policy changes going on in Washington,” Sheehan said. “What we have noted is that it has started to appear. That may be an indication that things are going to get a lot worse fast or that it’s a fluctuation that’s within the norm.

“I don’t want to undercut anything (Brandt) said,” Sheehan said. “I just want you to realize, we are advocates. We are trying to take a look at a trend in policy that would have an impact.”

Paul Smith’s College professor and climate scientist Curt Stager said the 2016-17 drop in pH was a “blip” on the radar and that the overall, the data has trended positively. Though there’s no immediate problem, he echoed the need for a continued push for acid rain reduction.

Banjo in hand, Paul Smith’s College Professor Curt Stager salutes the crowd at a Climate Strike in Riverside Park in Saranac Lake in September. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

“It’s been a great success story that we don’t want to roll back,” Stager said.

Trout “miracle”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation recently confirmed that Lake Colden, previously deemed “fishless,” has brook trout swimming its waters.

“It feels like a miracle,” Sheehan said. “Genetically, it’s nature doing what it does best, which is trying to be resilient, but man-oh-man, this was a surprise.”

He said other lakes, including Sagamore and Onondaga, which were devoid of trout in the 1980s and 90s, have their brook trout back.

“Brook trout are some of the toughest fish in terms of being able to withstand acidity,” Sheehan said.

Since 1995 there has been a 90% decrease in the sulfur dioxide pollution falling inside the Blue Line, according to the Adirondack Council.

Sheehan said that if the progress made on acid rain is reversed and the pH balance takes a long-term downturn, these waters could become fishless again.

“In fact, it will happen faster if we turn the pollution back on now,” Sheehan said. “Most of the alkaline buffering capacity in the soil has been used up.”

He said the conditions of the lakes could return to their 1980s state much sooner this time because the calcium and magnesium which prevented immediate damage to waters have already been used up. Previously, this soil held back acid rain from leeching heavy metals into lakes for 40 to 80 years, but now there is little keeping any pollution hitting the ground from doing damage.

Sheehan said it is as though the Adirondacks have a compromised immune system.

“It’s clear that we need the EPA to enforce the regulations that helped us recover from acid rain,” Stager said.

Sheehan again referenced the Trump administration and said the man the president nominated to fill the EPA’s top seat does not have the environment’s best interests in mind.

“The current EPA administrator, Andy Wheeler, I’ve known him for 30 years as an opponent,” Sheehan said, “The very first days that I went to lobby in 1990 in Washington on acid rain, he was there on the other side.”

He said Congress members have to pass the EPA budget, and that though for the past two years the Trump administration has proposed drastic cuts, congress denied them both times and actually increased the budget.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican from Schuylerville who represents northern New York, declined to comment for this article.

In September the EPA announced its intent to find that certain states have failed to submit plans for interstate transport of air pollution for the 2015 ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards. “Interstate transport of air pollution” refers to the cross-state movement of chemicals via the wind and if states do not adhere to proper plans they can be found in violation of the Clean Air Act’s “good neighbor” policy.

The EPA intends to issue these findings by Nov. 22.

Brandt said the more power plants that convert to natural gas the better conditions will be for acid rain in the future.


What’s going on: An Adirondack Council statement on acid rain re-emerging in the Adirondacks is being disputed by the researchers who measure the pH levels of clouds from Whiteface.

What’s at issue: The researchers say the Council came to the wrong conclusion and that the acidity levels of clouds in the area is actually on the decline.

However … Both groups agree the Environmental Protection Agency needs to do a better job of restricting cross-state air pollution.

They said it: “It’s been a great success story that we don’t want to roll back,” Paul Smith’s College professor and climate scientist Curt Stager said.


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